Female cyclists shine on Tour de France’s inaugural women’s race ‘La Course’


Marianne Vos of the Netherlands, right, crosses the finish line ahead of Kirsten Wild of The Netherlands and Leah Kirchmann of Canada to win La Course. (Laurent Rebours/AP)

For years, there has been a lot of chatter about why there is no women’s equivalent to the Tour de France. The biggest reason is because Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body, forbids women from racing more than 10 days. The Tour de France has 21 days of racing.

The reason for that cap seems shaky, to say the least. Current UCI President Brian Cookson implied in a documentary about gender discrimination in women’s road racing called “Half the Road” that women aren’t cut out for three weeks of racing.

“You couldn’t do it over the same distances,” he says in the documentary (via The New York Times). He then goes on to tell filmmaker Kathryn Bertine, a cyclist from Bronxville, N.Y., “You’re going to shoot me down and say women are just as strong and just as powerful.”

Bertine did more than that, she started a petition to bring women to the Tour.

Until 2009, women had their own Tour de France of sorts called La Grand Boucle Feminin. However, the race, which was not organized by the Le Tour officials but was its own separate entity, struggled to fund itself through sponsorships and eventually it was left to fade away.

Thanks to Bertine’s efforts in collecting nearly 100,000 signatures on a petition for the return of a women’s race, Tour de France officials answered by setting up La Course by Le Tour for the first time.

Far from a 21-stage event — or even a 10-stage event — La Course was set up as a 13-lap, 91-kilometer (57-mile) route around Paris. It would seem silly, or almost insulting, except that it was scheduled to go on the morning of the last stage of Tour de France.

That means more eyeballs on the sport’s most elite female riders. English rider Emma Pooley, who helped organize the petition, wrote in an essay for The Independent, stating that the goal of this race was to remind cycling fans that there are twice as many elite riders they could be watching:

So what makes La Course such a big deal? It’s not a Tour de Anything, let alone France. It’s not the most challenging circuit on the women’s calendar. It doesn’t bring the winner a garish jersey, or a title, or even a medal. So why the fuss?

Audience. The Tour de France is watched by millions worldwide. Viewers who never normally watch cycling give up several hours every day for three weeks to watch this epic, emotional, painful, beautiful battle over three weeks. La Course will be shown on TV in 157 countries. That’s a greater reach than any women’s road race has ever had. Great for the women who race there, and their teams’ sponsors, but also great for cycling fans.

Others expressed a bit more frustration with the consolation one-stage event. Champion cyclist Marianne Vos of the Netherlands told reporters (via USA Today):

“It’s a shame. We have a beautiful sport but we don’t get a lot of attention. We knew having more combined events would make a difference. We got this all started with a petition during last year’s Tour de France. We got around the table in September with the tour organization. Now we have La Course already in 2014. This is a small victory, and we’ll take it.”

And Vos really did take it. She won La Course and took home the 22,500 Euro (roughly $30,000) prize, which is the same amount the men get when winning a stage in the Le Tour.

While much of the world predicted Vos, and Olympic and Triple World Champion in road racing, to win, high-profile male Tour de France sprinters Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, both of Germany but of different teams, gave big ups to their female counterparts in an amusing promotional video. Kittel, of Giant-Shimano, put his money on Kirsten Wild, while Greipel of Lotto-Belisol strongly backed the efforts of Jolien d’Hoore.

Wild finished second and d’Hoore finished in seventh place. In between the two, Leah Kirchmann (Otum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) was third, Lisa Brennauer (Specialized-lululemon) took fourth, Shelley Olds (Ale Cipollini) finished fifth, and Coryn Rivera (UnitedHealthcare) came in sixth.

True to form, the race was exciting. It was speedy, there were crashes, there was a true sprint finish. If viewers didn’t know better when they flipped on the television this morning, they might have thought they were watching the men’s race. The riders looked just as strong.

Marissa Payne writes for The Early Lead, a fast-breaking sports blog, where she focuses on what she calls the “cultural anthropological” side of sports, aka “mostly the fun stuff.” She is also an avid WWE fan.
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